The festival of Onam in Kerala is a celebration of the death of king Mahabali at the hands of Vishnu. This fictional story is observed as a historical event, like most other Puranic stories. Thus, attempts to rewrite these stories become, in a way, a rewriting of history. In 1907, Tamil Nadu’s pioneering Dalit thinker Iyothee Thass reimagined the story of Mahabali. In his counter-narrative, Mahabali was a Buddhist king who ruled Mahabalipuram according to Buddhist ethics. He died in the Tamil month of Puratasi on a new moon (Amavasya) day. This day was observed as Mahabali Amavasya for a long time. Vaishnavites who saw the power of this story appropriated Mahabali and came up with the version that he was banished by Vishnu.
To a keen observer, it is clear that history is a battle between different narratives. Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, which gives us the story of Dalits and other oppressed sections of society, falls under the category of such counter narratives. Rather than merging the contemporary with the epic, Kaala is a narrative that locates the epic in the contemporary.
Dharavi in Mumbai, Asia’s second largest slum, is the stage for Kaala. Nationalist politician Haridev (Nana Patekar) tries to snatch away this place from its residents, who are substantially Tamils.
The film is the resistance that Karikaalan (Rajinikanth), who hails from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, poses to these attempts. Kaala fits the frame of the hero-villain narrative prevalent in Tamil cinema, but differs in meanings it projects.
Haridev tries to invade Dharavi in the garb of cleaning up Mumbai. Kaala stops him in his tracks. The narrative positions this tale in the Rama versus Raavana story in the Ramayana. The technocrat clad in white looks at the black-wearing Kaala and the Dharavi he reflects as dirt and something to be dispensed. Here, white, and the “purity” it represents, is not just a colour, but an ideology, and merges with the Puranic Rama. In the contemporary, it could be the black Raavana to the Rama of purity that the modern nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party represents. Like Rama killed Raavana, this modern nationalism tries to destroy the dirt that is black with the purity of white.
The film’s narrative merges these threads to explain the result of such projects as Swachh Bharat, which reflect the repercussions that the slums of our big cities face in the backdrop of corporatisation. The screenplay moves with the symbolism of white versus black in this specific meaning. Kaala says that he is black and protects by fighting. Haridev, who finds the very mention of Kaala cringeworthy, claims slums are a symbol of dirt. If the dirt is to be removed, the one who fights to protect the dirt should also be done away with.
It is Haridev’s wish that everyone should fall at his feet. His slogan is “Jai Maharastra!”But Kaala portrays black not as dirt but as colour. He tells people not to fall at his feet. My name is a Tamil name, Kaala says.
By putting this duel in the mould of the Ramayana, the narrative tells us that this fight is an extension of history. This is what we call a “counter narrative”. Instead of projecting the issue as just a contemporary one, the story merges the issue with an epic deeply entrenched in the psyche of the public. Such a counter narrative comes alive on a medium such as cinema that has the potential to affect public memory.
Pa Ranjith has taken up within the mould of commercial cinema the often ignored lives of the marginalised in urban areas, in each of his four films, Kaala, Kabali, Attakathi and Madras. He does this in a very systematic manner in the storylines and through customs, colours and dialogue. The slum comes to life with aspects such as the gaana performance tradition, beef, football and kabaddi. It brings to the fore the celebrations in the marginalised life. Dialogues like “our city is Madras and we are its address”, three-piece suits of the protagonist who sits cross-legged, converting a name like Kabali, often used as ridicule, into a hero’s name, bring out a different meaning to these elements.
In Kaala, the focus is on the land rights of the marginalised in Mumbai, but the issue is not confined to Mumbai alone and finds resonance across big cities. For long, land rights have been associated with farm land in the villages. Those living in cities do not locate land as a right, which is why they are dislocated from their land with little protest.
In the Puranic Ramayana, Raavana dies and Rama lives. When this story is merged in Kaala, it is Rama and not Raavana who is defeated. Even though Kaala seems to fulfill popular cinema’s norm that the protagonist succeeds in the end, it is important to stress here that this movie is not adhering to this rule. In the backdrop of a sermon on the Ramayana taking place in Haridev’s house, his men enter Dharavi and burn down houses and attack the people. They return, thinking that they have killed Kaala.
Until this point, the screenplay moves in the usual cinematic way. Raavana should die and he should not return – that is the rule of the epic. But in Tamil culture, the idea of looking at Raavana as a hero exists. This started with the 19th century Saivite movement and was later taken up by the Dravidian movement in the 20th century. Pulavar Kuzhanthai, a Dravidian writer, turned Raavana into a hero and wrote Raavana Kaviyam in 1946. In the movie, there is a copy of this book on Karikaalan’s study table. A song in the movie refers to Kaala as the one-headed Raavana. It is as a continuation of this history that the character of Raavana reaches this film and hence, his fate, becomes an important factor.
Does Kaala accept the Dravidian narrative of Raavana in totality or does it differ? It is in the answer to this question lies the uniqueness of this story.
Even though Pulavar Kuzhanthai portrays Raavana as an honest character, he is indeed vanquished by Rama in the end. The drama that the Dravidian poet Bharatidasan penned in 1934 by reimagining the story of Hiranyan (Hiranyakasipu) also killed the character in the end. Instead of believing in the potential of the creation, these creators believed more in history.
But in Ranjith’s story, Raavana wins by absorbing the true potential of imagination. A completely contradictory narrative to the Ramayana is made possible in Kaala. Not only does Kaala move away from climax of the Ramayana, but it also fills the gap left by the Dravidian narrative and moves ahead, in the same way Iyothee Thass did with Mahabali.
Assuming that Raavana (Kaala) has lost and he has won, Rama (Haridev) enters Dharavi and picks up the soil in his hands. Here, the movie enters the world of fantasy. A girl in the crowd throws black powder on Haridev. The crowd then surrounds him and throws the colours of blue and red at him. When Haridev looks up, he sees Kaala walking past as one among the crowd. Here, heroism is substituted with fantasy. It would have been easy to turn the epic upside down and show Kaala defeating Rama. But the movie does not end here. A sort of magic transpires. It symbolically shows that Kaala will never be defeated and will emerge again and again. Therefore, the face in the crowd is not Kaala but one among many Kaalas.
(Translated from Tamil by Sruthisagar Yamunan.)